Snell & Wilmer
Legal Alert
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April 7, 2016
California Court of Appeal Finds that Employers are Required to Reasonably Accommodate Even Non-disabled Employees

by Anne E. Dwyer and Christy D. Joseph

On April 4, 2016, the California Court of Appeal issued an unprecedented ruling in Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express that the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) requires employers to reasonably accommodate non-disabled employees who are associated with a person with a disability. It is important to note that this case did not involve rights for family medical leave under the FMLA or the CFRA, nor did it involve an employee with a disability. Rather, this was purely an associational disability discrimination case.

Specifically, the plaintiff in Castro-Ramirez was a truck driver for Dependable Highway Express (DHE) who had a son who required daily home dialysis treatments. The plaintiff was the only one who knew how to administer the dialysis and for two years he had been granted a work schedule accommodation that permitted him to work the earlier shift every day and be home in the evening to administer the dialysis. However, in 2013, the plaintiff’s new supervisor changed his work schedule and required him to work later shifts. Eventually, the plaintiff was terminated for refusing to work a late shift that would have prevented him from being home in time to care for his son.

The plaintiff sued DHE for, among other things, disability discrimination in violation of FEHA and retaliation for complaining about being denied his scheduling requests. DHE moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims arguing that under FEHA an employer has no duty to accommodate an employee based on his son’s illness and that the plaintiff could not prove his association with his disabled son was a motivating reason for his termination. DHE further argued that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating the plaintiff—namely his refusal to work the shift assigned to him.

In reversing the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the DHE, the Court of Appeal found that FEHA creates a duty to accommodate employees associated with persons with disabilities “according to the plain language of the act.” The Court noted that the definition of “physical disability” in FEHA explicitly includes persons associated with a person with a disability. Hence, according to the Court, “[a]n association with a physically disabled person is itself a disability under FEHA.” Therefore, when FEHA requires employers to reasonably accommodate the known physical disability of an applicant or employee, “the disabilities that employers must accommodate include the employee’s association with a physically disabled person.”

Interestingly, in this case the plaintiff had actually abandoned his claim for failure to reasonably accommodate. Therefore, the Court went on to address DHE’s argument that the plaintiff’s termination was not based on his association with a disabled person and it had a legitimate reason to terminate. The Court disagreed, finding that a jury could infer from the evidence that the plaintiff’s association with his disabled son was a substantial motivating factor in DHE’s decision to terminate him and that its stated reasons for termination—the plaintiff’s refusal to work the scheduled shift—was pretext as there was “no apparent reason why [DHE] could not have scheduled plaintiff for one of these earlier shifts.” Rather, it appeared to the Court that the plaintiff’s termination was to avoid “the nuisance plaintiff’s association with his disabled son would cause [DHE] in the future.”

Arguably the Court could have stopped at its finding that the plaintiff’s association with a disabled person was a motivating reason for his termination. The Court went even further though, finding that “[e]ven if this case is about DHE’s refusal to accommodate plaintiff’s schedule so he could administer dialysis to his son, FEHA entitles associates of the disabled to reasonable accommodations.”

The facts of Casto-Ramirez may cause any reasonably compassionate person to agree that the employer should have tried to accommodate the plaintiff’s schedule in that case. However, the Court of Appeal’s ruling opens the door for employees to ask for accommodations in their work schedule to care for someone else, including, for example, accommodation requests to take a friend or neighbor to a doctor’s appointment. Employers should be aware of this decision and its impact on their duty to accommodate employee’s scheduling or other accommodation requests going forward.

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